The Christian view of human life
Playing God—how inconceivable such a proposition is for the Christian mind! People are subject to limitations of time and space; they do not know what is best. Sin has weakened their minds, bodies, and whole beings. Life itself is not their own. Whenever humans assume absolute responsibility over other humans, they usurp divine prerogatives and create tyranny, violence, and oppression. God alone can be trusted with life and destiny. Let God alone be God.
Yet while God alone can be God, He has given people a measure of authority—they are to be responsible stewards of divine properties. Life is one such property, which, though it belongs entirely to God, He has en trusted to us. The Creator asks us to procreate and then to safeguard the fruits for Him. Men and women, then, are not only subject to the laws of life; they also have some control over them.
While people have heard the injunction to procreate, their concern for the fruits of procreation sometimes lags behind. It is the purpose of this article to clarify the Christian view of human life and the extent of our responsibility for it.
What does "sacred" mean?
Christianity views all life as precious, but human life as sacred. This conviction informs and determines the Christian's attitude toward nature and toward human beings. But what separates human life from other forms of life? What makes human life sacred? And what effect did the Fall have on the sacredness of human life?
According to the Bible, God is holy (Rev. 15:4). His being and His character are essentially and absolutely identified with an undivided and absolute holiness. Scripture expresses this in several ways:
1. Sacredness.1 Fundamentally, the Hebrew word qadas denotes the separateness and otherness of God. God is in no way identified with anything else (Hosea 11:9). His holiness makes Him unique and separate (Ex. 3:5; 19:18, 24); He remains inviolably sacred.
2. Majesty. God's holiness bespeaks His majesty and awesomeness (Ex.15:1). His majestic presence arouses not only fear and awe (Gen. 28:17) but also wonder and worship (Ps. 96:9).
3. Moral purity. Finally, God's holiness proclaims that there is no sin, evil, or profanity in Him (Jer. 5:16; Heb. 1:13). His actions, His words, His relationships, are flawless and perfect.
So primarily, the word "holy" refers to God, whose holiness is intrinsic and underived.
But God's holiness affects everything that is associated with Him. Time (Sabbath), place (Temple), people (priest), and thing (ark of the covenant) derive their holiness from God.
1. What belongs to God is sacred. He calls the Sabbath "my holy day" (Isa. 58:13); Israel is holy, "a people for his own possession" (Deut. 7:6, RSV); and the temple is "his holy temple," where He dwells (Ps. 11:4). God's property is sacred and requires respect. Profanation of the Sabbath is a sin of transgression and trespassing.
2. What is set apart is sacred. The people of God are urged to make a clear distinction between the sacred and the profane. When God sets apart priests, a sanctuary, the ark of the covenant, Temple vessels, or a day so that these serve as instruments or ministers in worship or God's representatives, then such people or objects are sacred. When a common person disregarded this distinction and touched that which was sacred, it resulted in tragedy (2 Sam. 6:6, 7).
In the English language the word "life" represents mainly two different concepts:
1. The existential—concrete living in the sense of the duration or manner of life. The expressions "good life," "long life," "hard life," and "quality of life" use the word in the general sense of the Greek bios, or existence.
2. The ontological—a more abstract sense by which we mean that mysterious something that distinguishes the living from lifeless matter. When used of humans in this way, we mean the human essence often referred to as the "soul," i.e., a complete human being.
In this article we are generally thinking of the essence, while recognizing the close relationship between the existential and the essential.
What makes life sacred?
From the Christian point of view, what, then, makes life sacred?
1. God is the author of life and therefore life is precious (see Ps. 36:9). When God created this planet, He sup plied it with light, soil, water, air, and seeds (Gen. 1:3-11). All seed is infused with potential for generation, growth, and reproduction; the Life-giver endowed organic matter with life.
2. God is the sustainer and owner of life; therefore life is precious. God did not abandon His creation when He completed His creative work. Scripture teaches that He is an active sustainer of life (Ps. 104:29, 30). Through the laws of nature instituted at Creation and through humanity's stewardship over the earth, God sustains life indirectly. But the Bible underlines God's active and direct involvement, and the total dependence of living creatures on His activity.
God makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall (Matt. 5:45); He gives food to the birds of heaven (Matt. 6:26) and water to the wild animals (Ps. 104:11); not even the death of a sparrow escapes His knowledge (Matt. 10:29), and even should people disrespect the laws of nature through neglect, destructive violence, or selfish manipulation, the Owner of life visits them with consequences and so calls them to responsibility. Because God sustains life, investing in its every breath and pulsation, life belongs to Him and is precious.
3. Life is set apart for a special purpose, and so it is precious. At the time of Creation God established a delicate and well-balanced biosystem on earth. According to Genesis 1:29, 30, green plants grow from inorganic soil and serve as food for animals; fruits and seeds are given to humans for food. Not one organic living thing exists without reason or purpose, nor is any living thing independent of everything else. Yet life's value does not lie simply in mutual usefulness or interconnectedness. Rather, harmony and unity in nature serve as witnesses to the existence and nature of its Creator (Ps. 19:1-4; Rom. 1:19, 20). Because of the divine purpose for their existence, the life in living things is precious.
From this divinely assigned purpose, however, stem limitations of value and, therefore, different orders or classes of life. Respect for life means respect for the originally designated purpose for each category. To use plants, fruits, nuts, and animal life for their intended service often implies the taking of their life. Any use of the lower life (plant or animal) that trespasses the original in tent and any use of humans as mere objects constitutes abuse and profanation of life.
What is the nature of human life?
Human beings are part of the life cycle of this planet. They depend totally on this earth's biosystem, and so their lives share in life in general.2 But human life stands above subhuman life. The Bible expresses the uniqueness and superior dignity of humankind as the "image of God."
While all of life, including human life, proceeds from God, belongs to Him, is totally dependent on Him, and exists to serve His purposes, only human beings were created in their Maker's image.3 Their reflections of His image, which take various forms, are the very factors that intensify the sacredness of human life and define the meaning of the word "human." We can say, therefore, that sacredness is Godlikeness, a reflection of Him, and that humanness is Godlikeness as well, and a reflection of Him.
Before we proceed with a definition of the various dimensions of the imago Dei, some preliminary observations are in order. The Bible teaches that a human being is a whole, a simple being. A person is not simply an aggregation, a complex system of individual parts. The soul, body, and spirit are not independent units masterfully connected, so that one might measure a person's humanity or the sacredness of his or her life on a scale that measures whether or not all of the parts function well or are accounted for (more on this later). Human reason, the will, the emotions, etc., are not simply parts of a whole, but rather, different dimensions of one homogenous being.
Furthermore, femaleness and maleness are not additions or appendages to some kind of generic androgynous primate. Scripture teaches that God created particularity of genders as an integral and original dimension of human beings. They are female or male; they do not have femaleness or maleness. So at the highest level of life on earth—the human level—there are no classes, categories, or value distinctions. Both male and female humans are equally privileged to reflect God's image.
Finally, when God chose to make creatures in His image, He also decided the limitations of that image. Scripture repeatedly indicates that people both resemble and differ from God. So God is omnipresent (Ps. 139:7-12) and omnipotent (Gen. 17:1), while humans are limited and finite (Matt. 19:26). Yet God's nature still finds its reflection in the totality of the human being.
In what ways do human beings resemble God? The first two dimensions of resemblance listed below humans share partially with other living creatures. But humans possess them in a more perfect way, thus reflecting the Creator more fully.
1. Individuality and sacredness. God's holiness is expressed by His separateness and uniqueness; there is no other like Him (Isa. 44:6). And humans are like God in that the Creator has granted them the privilege of being different, of being unique.
Human beings are unique first of all in respect to the rest of creation. Humanity's individuality comprises not only physical distinctions from other creatures but also the additional dimensions—mental, spiritual, moral, etc.—unique to humans.
Individuality appears also in relation to other human beings. Physically, men tally, emotionally, and in every respect every human being is unrepeated, irreplaceable, and the only sample God owns. For that reason human life is sacred. 4
2. Creatorship and sacredness. God created the first human pair. Scripture carefully sets apart that act from His other creative activities (Gen. 1:26-28).
• A planning session preceded their creation. Their emergence was not a surprise, but rather the fruit of an intentional and deliberate exercise.
• God prepared the earth for their arrival. What He created on the preceding days provided for all of their physical needs, from air to breathe to a home in the garden.
• For their creation God changed drastically His modus operandi. While He made the rest of creation by the power of His word, He formed the man and woman with His hands and directly breathed into them the breath of life.
But God did not create only the first couple. Through the powers of procreation given to man and woman, He remains the parent of the whole human race. "In him we live and move and have our being; . . . for we are indeed his offspring" (Acts 17:28, RSV). The Creator shared His powers with humans, thus giving us another dimension of His image.
At this point, however, an important question arises: What is it in human nature that reflects God as the Creator? Certainly humanity's creativity in the arts, industry, and other areas is a partial reflection of God's creativity. 5 But what of the reproductive aspect of human life? Is it the procreative act per se that reflects His image, or is it the procreative power given to humans in the form of sexual polarity controlled by reason and will? If we conclude that the procreative act as such reflects God as the Creator, we face a host of problems. Are children, singles, or childless couples deprived of some dimension of the imago Dei! Furthermore, does the procreative act in rape or prostitution also reflect God as the Creator? Finally, animals and plants procreate. Are they also then in the image of God?
It seems more appropriate to conclude that sexual powers and male-female polarity as well as humanity's creative abilities reflect God's creatorship ontologically. Whether our use of these powers reflects the way God would use them is a question of our responsibility as intelligent and moral beings. Certainly rape does not reflect the method of God's creative act; rather, it is the abuse of God-given powers. Instead of reflecting the image of God, such an act dims His image.
Human life is sacred because of its God-given powers to create for Him. While the lower creation simply follows instinct, humans must act responsibly, with a commitment to reflecting their Creator.
Uniquely human reflections of God
We now consider the dimensions of the image of God humanity does not share with other living beings.
3. Personhood and sacredness. Human life is sacred because, like God, humans are persons. Animals do not have this dimension. The term person is generally defined as "unity of bodily and mental actions in activity." 6 Rea son, will, emotions, memory, intelligence, etc., function as one whole. As a result, human beings have a sense of self in which all faculties act with purpose and in harmony with the decisions of that self.7
The Christian God is an absolute and ideal person. Unity and harmony have characterized His personality from eternity. But as creatures, humans only partially reflect the Creator. Though they are maturing as persons from the inception of life until death, their personhood never reaches its apex. They never achieve that state in which all faculties are fully developed and function in harmony and to optimum capacity. Neither their life span nor the conditions of this sinful world allow that. The Bible points to an open-ended destiny for human personhood, the time when the full potential will be realized under sinless conditions in an endless existence (Eph. 4:15).
But for now, human life is sacred because it is endowed with this ongoing advancement toward a full reflection of divine personhood. The one who hinders such progress acts against the very nature of a person. For this reason, then, human life is to be protected and set apart.
The personhood of humanity also suggests that human life is sacred be cause it implies that a person has a right to the freedom of expressing the faculties of personhood. Only through the free exercise of his or her faculties can a person grow and stimulate growth in others.
4. Eternity and sacredness. God is eternal and immortal; humans are finite and mortal. Yet even humanity's temporality reflects God's image. At Creation human finiteness reflected the Creator's eternity in humanity's infinite potential and in conditional immortality. With the coming of sin, death replaced immortality, and human potential was suppressed. But though it was sup pressed, it was not destroyed. Neither sin nor death has as yet earned acceptance with human beings. Physically, mentally, and emotionally we all function with eternity in view (Eccl. 3:11), and with all our energies, means, and willpower we oppose death. The redemption Jesus Christ made available appeals to this faint yet earnest existential yearning, offering along with eternal life the full restoration of God's image in us.
5. Dignity and sacredness. The expression of holiness in the majesty of God reveals humanity's dignity. Scripture states: "Yet thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor" (Ps. 8:5, RSV). Every human is entitled to respect and honor simply on the basis of his or her status as a human being. This dignity is God-given, and therefore not earned, awarded, or subject to being withheld by humans. It gives us dominion over the lower creation and demands that humans respect other humans.
6. Moral purity and sacredness. God's holiness implies His moral purity and perfection; God is a moral being. Humanity reflects this aspect of God's being in its constant yearning and striving for purity and perfection. Human life has a destiny higher, loftier, and nobler than that of other forms of life. This destiny is a call to be ' 'perfect even as your Father ... in heaven is perfect'' (Matt. 5:48). For this goal God created humanity; to this end they are commit ted. Living is essential to reaching this end; therefore life is sacred.
7. Freedom and sacredness. God is free. He does what He wants. No one has the right to ask Him "What doest thou?" (Job 9:12; Ps. 115:3). Human beings are born with a desire, even a need, for freedom. Dozens of years in captivity or oppression, even being born in a society in which basic freedoms are denied, cannot accustom a moral human being to existence as a mere machine. Christians view freedom as an essential right of every human being, part of the reflection of God's image. This basic freedom belongs to us by nature as humans, independent of social or legal conditions (Gal. 3:28). And first and primarily this freedom means the right to live; above all else I am free to be.
8. Spirituality and sacredness. God is spirit, a spiritual being (John 4:24). This means that God is life, He is not just a living being; He is presence, not just a process. He is infinite, transcendent, and changeless, and so He cannot be contained or limited (1 Kings 8:27; 2 Chron. 2:6; 6:18).
Created in His image, human beings reflect divine spirituality through their religious dimension. Augustine ex pressed this essential yearning for God in his prayer, "God, Thou has made us for Thyself, and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in Thee." So religiosity is not a matter of choice any more than breath is optional.8
This yearning for communion is not unilateral. Scripture tells us that God also seeks to meet with humans (Gen. 3:8, 9; Ex. 25:8). Life is sacred not only because it is an indispensable condition for communion with God (Ps. 115:17), but also because to fellowship with Him is life's ultimate purpose.
All of these dimensions distinguish human life from life in general and establish the claim that life is sacred. The uniqueness of each human being contributes to the richness of God's creation and warrants the indispensability of each individual. Dignity points to the origin of humanity and the fact that all people belong to God. Moral perfectibility, procreation, personhood, potential, freedom, and spirituality—all reflect the Creator and together produce a multidimensional dynamic and relational life. God, as a good steward of His properties, secured the safety of human life in spite of sin.
The Fall and sacredness
The Bible states that all humans have sinned and have come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Sin's intrusion into human life produced far-reaching alterations. Even though it manifests itself on the existential level of our life (thoughts, attitudes, words, actions), sin's primary locus is the human heart (Jer. 17:9) and the will (Rom. 7).9 It has defaced and almost obliterated the image of God in humanity. 10
In marring the image of God, sin has impinged upon the very content of humanness and sacredness. This raises some serious questions: What is the Christian view of the fallen human life? Must we respect it? In other words, is human life still sacred, or can we consider it to have only relative or perhaps conditional sacredness?
The Christian good news proclaims that in His foresight, God decided to intervene in human history to restore the original full sanctity of human life. Scripture reports two such interventions, one of authority and one of love.
The intervention of authority. A frightful realization dawned upon the first murderer: human life is cheap. It was relatively easy to take Abel's life; it would be just as easy for someone to take his, Cain's. "Not so," said God (Gen. 4:15), and Cain was safe.
After the Flood (which had taken billions of lives), when the earth loomed empty, the continued existence of hu man life again seemed threatened. Then God intervened. "For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man; of every man's brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image" (Gen. 9:5, 6, RSV).
When, at Sinai, God proclaimed His will, He placed sinful human life under the protection of the moral law (Ex. 20:13). Though His image in humanity was defaced and weakened, He shielded it from any attempt at calibrating or ranking its humanness. Over and above the dictates of our conscience and reason, beyond the pressures of culture and expedience, stands the sovereign authority of the Lord of life. To Him all who take human life lightly must answer. Even the most "dehumanized" humanoids claim respect.
Of particular importance here is a comment Ellen G. White made. She stated that a slave who has been ''kept in ignorance and degradation, knowing nothing of God or the Bible, fearing nothing but his master's lash" may hold a lower position than the "brutes." 11 Yet, she said, "the slavemaster will have to answer for the soul of his slave." 12
A human may be forced to the level of brutes, but even then that human is not a brute. And those who perpetrate the crime will have to face a severe reckoning.
The intervention of love. Because He loves the human race, God began a rescue mission with one goal—that of saving human life. This venture, in which He has made an incalculable investment, seeks to restore what sin has destroyed, and to set human life above common, careless treatment. To take human life, or even to abuse or neglect it, is not only a transgression of the explicit commandment, but also subversive to the plan of redemption. Not only did God create the image, Christ has provided for its restoration.
Measuring the soul's value
Because Jesus has died for all, even for those who do not accept His death (1 Tim. 2:6; 1 John 2:2), the life of all human beings is precious. It is the cross, not one's capacities, usefulness, or maturity, that reveals the value of the human soul. 13
The benefits of Christ's death extend to the little children who have not yet reached the age of accountability, 14 and even to those who are mentally handicapped. A woman bore several children who were mentally retarded because of her husband's drunkenness. Some of these children died, and of them Ellen White wrote that at the resurrection morning the mother will meet them again if she remains faithful. 15
Of two of the living children, she wrote, "[They] will always be children, and will be restored by the power of the great Restorer, when mortals shall have put on immortality. . . .
"In regard to the case of John, you see him as he now is and deplore his simplicity. He is without the consciousness of sin. The grace of God will remove all this hereditarily transmitted imbecility, and he will have an inheritance among the saints in light.'' 16
Redemption is the ultimate reason for the sacredness of human life. Whether or not we submit to divine authority, and whether or not we relate to our fellow human beings in the light of Calvary, only God has a total claim on life, human life in particular. He counts even young children and the mentally incompetent among those for whom the infinite price was paid.
In spite of divine intervention in human destiny, life remains vulnerable. Outlooks that either reject or are indifferent to God's claims compete with the Christian view of human life as sacred. As a result the whims, passions, and pleasures of the selfish human heart control the fate of many. When there is no belief in God as Creator, no concept of His image in humanity, no consciousness that humanity is loved and is being rescued, there is no concept of a future—a destiny—for human life, and therefore no reason to respect it. In this context the Christian church is called to assert the sanctity of human life and to alleviate the suffering that stems from disregard for God's claims.
Christians ought to view human life as a gift given to humans at the creation of the first Adam (man). Procreation is the extension of that original act of creation, and thus it places a heavy responsibility on men and women.
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1 The word "sacred" comes from the Latin
word sacrum, which in pagan religion meant
"mat which belongs to a god or is in god's
2 Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of
Man (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1964),
pp. 3, 4.
3 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 313.
I prefer a personal pronoun when referring to
human life. At no time and under no condition is
human life an impersonal "it."
4 ____ , Education, p. 17.
5 See V. N. Olsen, Man, the Image of God
(Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub.
Assn., 1988), pp. 54ff.
6 Peter Angeles, Dictionary of Philosophy
(New York: Barnes and Noble, 1981), p. 208.
7 To scholastics the center of personhood is in
reason. For others it is the will, the conscience,
the ego, etc.
8 Jacques Doukhan, Hebrew for Theologians.
To be published.
9 See also Ellen G. White, Thoughts From the
Mount of Blessing, p. 61.
10 The SDA Bible Commentary, Ellen G. White
Comments, vol. 6, p. 1078; Ellen G. White,
Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 294; Patriarchs and
Prophets, p. 595.
11 ____ , Early Writings, p. 276.
13 , Fundamentals of Christian Education,
p. 214; Gospel Workers, p. 184.
14 ____ , Child Guidance, pp. 565, 566;
Selected Messages, Book 2, p. 260; E. G. White
manuscript 26, 1885.
15 E. G. White letter 1, 1893 (Manuscript release
1434), p. 5.
16 Ibid., pp. 5-9.